Happily Never After: True (Fictional) Love

Let me start out by saying I do believe in love. I do believe that a couple can make it work. I believe that when two people are right for each other, they can make it work. I truly love my husband and understand that a perfect relationship doesn’t feel perfect 24/7. You will have your moments; one or both of you are so tired and just want some alone time but you know if you came home and they weren’t there you’d be worse off than just knowing they’re in the other room or on the other side of the couch. You have a disagreement; it wouldn’t be much of a relationship without having moments where you grow together through discord. It’s healthy, it’s normal.

But not every relationship is healthy, and putting up with certain nonsense is not supposed to be normal.

There are certain books that make a profound change on you. It doesn’t have to be one of the scholarly AP English books in the high school library. It can be simpler, a story more realistic than fantasy.

For me, it was a banned book by Judy Blume called Forever. Now, as a banned book, you know there’s got to be something about it worth reading if it’s worth banning. However, it’s also Judy Blume, who is amazing and well known for her coming-of-age books for young adults that touches on materials that some adults obviously feel a teenager shouldn’t read about (although what she writes about, teenagers are definitely doing so why not just discuss it?).

So it’s my first year at university, the English department makes Banned Books Week like a scholastic book fair, and I buy a couple of books: Forever and Tango Makes Three (the latter being about a same-sex penguin couple who raise a chick, based on a true story and I can’t recommend it enough). Despite the cuteness of the penguin couple, though, Forever struck a chord with a familiar vibe that I can still feel to this day. A teenage girl finds herself in a committed relationship with a boy, swears it has to be true love, and their romantic relationship blooms from that electrifying first love feeling through the stages of a first physically intimate relationship (bluntly, first sexual experiences). Now, this girl, she knows that she is completely in love with this boy and he is fully in love with her back. So why is her family and friends cautioning them so much? They’re going to be together forever! Nothing will tear them apart and it feels like no one understands that!

I understood it. I was living that with my very own first love (I almost put that in quotes but you know what? I really, really stand by that we did love each other…at first). A high school sweetheart I met at an away camp, so we were long-distance. He was different (because they all are, right?), and he recognized that I was different (because I “am not like other girls” though come on, no, I really wasn’t). We liked the same metal bands and other musical tastes (living in the country towns of Oklahoma, that felt so unique and special). It was that first “true love” feeling that you read about in books…young adult romance books that take advantage of our uncontrollable, rising hormones that control every thought and emotion in pubescent people. He was every male protagonist I read about, every main vampire character or whatever fantasy hybrid that the impressionable young heroine meets perchance and can’t help but fall for and cast every self-ambition aside in order to remain with him.

You get it.

But surely, I thought, Judy Blume had her points, but surely she was entirely wrong. Or at least her story wasn’t applicable to me and my then-sweetheart. Like, really! We were in love-love! Yes, I could see how Forever’s protagonist discovered that first love doesn’t always mean only love, that it is possible for people to change, for feelings to develop towards other people.

But oh no, there was no way that could happen to us. We were freaking Bella and Edward (yes, I know, not healthy relationship goals but neither are half of the fantasy romance books that we read and daydream about! I’m just giving you a clear picture at how I was in an absolute hormonal fog and completely lost in love).

I’m cringing as I type this, just so you are very aware, I am very much wincing as I type this.

It was my first year of college, but I was convinced that our “plans” would stay on track and could be deterred by nothing: graduate, get married, settle down and have kids.

By second year of college, these dreamy plans no longer felt like a blissful dream but a foreboding reoccurring nightmare: I truly no longer wanted that future, but it felt like it was too late to say anything. We’d been together for years and his family already considered me to be his future-wife. I was everyone’s future daughter-in-law, granddaughter-in-law, niece-in-law, etc.

Now, this didn’t come out of nowhere. Much like many of those fantasy romances that we examine through 20/20 hindsight, our relationship quickly went from fantasy to grim reality; we no longer got along, our every night phone conversation turned into our nightly fights and crying fests, and I began having to force myself the happy energy to be around him when we did have our time together. A voice finally broke through:

This is exactly what it will be like. That marriage certificate won’t magically make you feel in love again. This is it. This is what your every day will be like. Is that what you want?

Did I what I want matter? Of course it did, but at that time, I felt like a young martyr who had no choice but to keep going towards those plans we developed back in high school: marriage, life, bliss.

But there would be no bliss. That was becoming clearer as time passed and our interactions became volatile and angry.

This is not to put blame on my then-sweetheart; we both were different, or maybe it was just me who had changed and was no longer okay with things I had either been okay with or was too blindly-in-love to see before. Either way, I knew what we had wasn’t “happy” or “forever after.” If so, we were only going to be all that much more miserable. For a while, I struggled with the idea that it was just me; maybe I wasn’t meant to get married. There are many people who discover (usually later in life) that they aren’t meant for marriage and find much more happiness raising foster pit bulls alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Maybe that would be me…but for basset hounds and cats.

But when I tried expressing this to him, I was met with a cold and quiet stare before he angrily said, “Seriously, I should just leave you right now. Why would you even say that?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want to get married to you,” I tried explaining, backtracking as I realized how pissed he was. I didn’t say it meanly, trying to be open and transparent as we always had been. “I mean just married in general. I’m just trying to figure that out.”

“Let me know when you figure that out.” He said it so clipped I just dropped the topic. I tried reassuring him that again, it wasn’t him but me…and much later I realized how, no, it was him but also me. Perhaps it was surprising to him because I’m now certain that many things I was not okay with in our relationship were always around, but it wasn’t until I reached college and was independent and away from my high school bedroom and small town enclosure that I became very not okay with so many things.

(Note: there was never any physical abuse, but I cannot there wasn’t any verbal or emotional abuse.)

At any rate, neither of us was good for the other. That was a grim awakening I just wanted to hold off as long as possible. Forever ended up being the “what happens next” story for that relationship, but I fought against it hard and ended up living it anyway. People ask me if I regret that relationship; we were in a committed relationship for years of our teenage and early twenties, ages when people generally date around before finding “the one.” I just thought we were lucky to find “the one” on the first try.

It’s okay to discover you’re wrong about that, as much as it can be painful. And it was. Even though I felt it was the right decision to make for myself, if not for both of us for I knew I wasn’t making him happy either, it was a messy and emotional split. I couldn’t even tell my parents verbally; I freaking emailed them and just explained how I wasn’t happy, didn’t feel he was happy either, and felt it was the right thing to do. They both emailed back saying that first and foremost they loved me and wanted me to be happy and supported my decision if I truly felt right about it.

In other words, they weren’t always thrilled with our relationship and only put up with it as long as they did because I was so “in love” and would find a way to be with him the harder they pointed out the faults.

So back to the point of regrets: I only regret the last year or two we were together but obviously were no longer happy. The words of friends and family had become haunting: you two are so perfect together. You look so cute! You’re so in love! You’re going to be together forever!

Here’s a tip, kids: When forever no longer feels like a dream but a life sentence, that is a huge sign to reevaluate. You may wish you had.

I’m glad I had the time to do so. I believe I saved us a wasted wedding and bitter divorce by breaking it off, as awful as that experience was.

I’ve only read a handful of authors who make this realistic life trope a plot point in their stories. Even in fantasy works (Sara J. Maas does an amazing Faerie series that focuses on a false happily ever after and realistic relationship abuse), it is possible!

I like to think he’s doing okay, whatever he’s doing. It goes without saying that we don’t speak and haven’t for ten years now. He doesn’t have a social media presence and we shared only one text message after our break up (a small check in to see how he was doing that was very, very short). Despite having been considered “nearly family,” I’ve not even spoken with any of his family members since. I do wish them all well and understand how I’m probably not invited back for Sunday dinners.

Do I believe in true love? Absolutely. Could it happen on the first time? Maybe. I know some couples who it happened for. But was that what happened for me? Oh, no. And that is fine. I don’t dismiss love or its powerful hold on us (even in my thirties, I still enjoy a good fantasy love story [currently reading the From Blood And Ash series by Jennifer L. Armentrout]). I just make sure my kids remember that being happy, healthy, and safe is more important than being in love, as wonderful as it can be, to not be too serious too soon, especially being so young.

Who knows for sure if they took that seriously or just took it as “yeah, yeah, old person, I hear you” head nods.

Comment below: what book gave you a life-changing realization? What books have tried warning you but you thought “nah, that won’t happen to me”? Was it a realistic fiction or did you find some truth in fiction?

Let me know.

Stay safe out there.

-A.R.

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